The first step to making a new professional connection can be a little awkward.
Usually, you start by reaching out over email. You might agonize over the acceptable number of exclamation points — or double check the spelling of several words you have certainly spelled successfully many times before. You read the email at least three times before you hit send. It’s awful and anxiety inducing.
But then it gets better.
The object of your inquiry either doesn’t respond — at which time you can forget the whole thing ever happened — or they accept your oh-so-casual invitation to coffee (or lunch or drinks, if you were feeling brave). Chances are, the two of you spend some time getting to know each other, hopefully talking and laughing about at least a few things that have nothing to do with work.
Now though, that can’t happen. In the middle of a pandemic, the only place networking can happen is across a screen: over email, on the phone, or on a video platform like Zoom.
This is bad news for women.
Studies show that women and men network differently. While men — more self-assured than women, on average — are quicker to ask for favors from a wider range of connections, women prioritize building a relationship with professional contacts, says Marjo-Riitta Diehl, a professor of organizational behavior at the EBS Business School in Germany, who has studied gender differences in networking. Men are quicker to self promote: According to one recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper, women estimated that they performed an average of 15 points worse than men on a test, even though both genders had the same average score.
When women network, Diehl says, they are particularly concerned with “relational morality” — not wanting to ask for something without knowing when and how they can do something for the person in return. Women tend to make a request only after they’ve had a chance to forge a deeper connection.
“For women, this idea of reciprocity — I give something to the network, get something from the network — is very important,” said Diehl.
It’s hard to forge a deeper connection on Zoom, particularly if you’re trying to network with someone you’ve never met. Most video calls these days are either purely utilitarian — a work meeting — or purely social — a call with family or friends to maintain the in-person social connections we lost overnight. While an hour of casual banter with a stranger will always be a hard sell, that kind of interaction feels especially hard to justify when it has to happen across a screen. If the more senior colleague is a parent with young kids at home, forget it. There’s no time for lingering conversation. You might have time to ask a quick favor — and that's about it.
This puts women at a professional disadvantage. While a man is more likely to reach out to a contact with a quick request, women may default to a “relationship building” call, far less effective over phone or video. They might also avoid the whole situation altogether, waiting until they can meet the person face to face.
Amanda Nicklas, 21, can’t afford to wait until the pandemic is over. She’s a junior in college at Webster University in St. Louis, majoring in script writing. When she graduates, she hopes to get a job in television, an ultracompetitive industry. Who you know is important, she says. Last semester, she did most of her networking though her internship in St. Louis, meeting new people through her boss. Since self-quarantine began, she’s been blasting out messages on Twitter, inviting TV writers and producers to “a virtual drinks session or lunch.” Five have agreed, joining Nicklas for 20 or 30 minutes on Zoom.
On these Zoom calls, Nicklas hopes to “get to know” the people she’s talking to, peppering them with questions about their background, and how they got to where they are.
“I never go into these calls like, ‘Give me a job.’ That’s the last thing I would ever want to do,” said Nicklas. She is always looking for ways that she might be able to help the other person. “I want to hopefully have a lasting relationship with these people past a 20-minute Zoom conversation.”
But that can be difficult, she says. As a stranger on a screen, she says, she is keenly aware that she can easily come across as “a little stone statue who has questions about TV.” She’s been practicing her hand gestures and facial expressions. By exaggerating her movements, she says, she hopes she’ll convey more personality.
When you’re networking with someone you don’t know that well, it’s important to be “informal,” said Marsha Pinto, 25, a speech therapist in the Bay Area. She’s learned to ask new contacts about where they grew up, she says, always looking for ways to form an “emotional attachment.”
“If people get those kinds of questions online though, and they’ve never met you before, they’re thinking, ‘Who is this creeper?’” she says. “It’s much harder to do if you’re not in person.”
In more normal times, Kelsey Byers, a biology postdoctoral student at the University of Cambridge, does the vast majority of her networking at conferences she attends two or three times a year. Before the conference gets started, she looks through the program to see who is going to be there, often emailing more senior professors in her field, asking if they can get coffee between sessions. The conference provides an essential “structure” and “preexisting connection,” giving her the confidence to reach out to someone she doesn’t know. Being a fellow conference attendee is “proof I am someone they should bother responding to,” she says.
“The assertiveness, going out and making connections — it’s especially difficult if you don’t have any structure to support that,” said Byers.
Byers hasn’t done any networking since self-quarantine began. Even in person, Byers struggles to reach out to academics she doesn’t know well. It’s “unnerving” to say to someone, “Here is who I am, here is why I’m worth talking to.” She is always acutely aware of the power imbalance, she says, self-conscious about asking for time from someone more senior.
It’s especially intimidating if you have no idea whether the senior person is open to having this kind of interaction with someone more junior, she says. At an in-person conference, she takes advantage of the built-in socializing time: group coffees, happy hours, communal lunches.
“If you’re standing in line at a coffee hour, you’re already signaling that you are willing to network,” Byers said. In that kind of setting, she says, it’s less intimidating to approach the people you’d like to get to know.
The online conference she attended recently didn’t offer the same kinds of opportunities. While she could hear from more senior people in her field, watching their lectures, there was no opening for connection. On Twitter, she’s since proposed adding some kind of informal socializing element to virtual conferences. While online “coffees” with 20 people wouldn’t work particularly well, she says, maybe conferences could offer a Slack group for participants. If she met a colleague in that kind of setting, talking about a shared interest, that would provide enough of an opening. Maybe then she’d feel comfortable asking to talk.
During a crisis, everyone is more likely to “turtle up,” reaching out less frequently to people outside their inner circles, said Brian Uzzi, a professor at Northwestern’s management school, who has studied the gender dynamics of networking. But this tendency creates more of a problem for women, whose inner circles tend to be more tightly connected, with various members more likely to know each other. When relying only on their inner circles, Uzzi said, this means women have a more limited professional reach.
Still, it’s not all bad news for women, said Diehl. Men have larger, more diverse professional networks in part because they spend time getting to know other men in traditionally male-dominated spaces — basketball courts, golf clubs, bars — now mostly off-limits because of coronavirus. When socializing is exclusively virtual, Diehl said, women also miss out on less.
As long as she’s self-quarantined, Nicklas will continue to schedule “virtual drinks,” laying the foundation for what she hopes will be lasting relationships.
She has no idea if it’s working. In a few months, Nicklas will email the writers and producers with a question or a relevant article. When she graduates, maybe she’ll write to them about an open job at their company.
She hopes she’ll hear something back.